Value-added business discovers gold in straw

Gabby, left, Corrie, Charlotte and Dave Fisher manufacture and sell straw pellets from their farm near Blackie, Alta.  | Janet Kanters photo

Alberta family creates pellets that can be used for stoves, animal bedding, small pet litter and gardens and flowerbeds

Value-added has been a buzzword in agriculture for decades, and one family in southern Alberta has taken the term to heart to create several products out of one resource — straw.

Corrie and Dave Fisher of Blackie have figured out how to compress straw into pellets for stoves, animal bedding, small pet litter, and for use in gardens and flowerbeds.

“It was during a search for a way to make a burnable grain pellets for our grain stoves that we came across the use of straw pellets,” said Corrie. 

“We found many articles on the internet about how straw pellets have been used in Europe for many years and found it interesting that we had never seen an option for this in Western Canada.”

Corrie said they looked further and discovered pellets were being made in the eastern and southern United States.

They also liked how straw pellets had many uses — animal bedding, horticulture and for heating.

In 2016, the couple began two and a half years of research before starting the venture.

In October 2018, EZ Pelletz was operational making Alberta’s first straw pellets.

The pelletizing process begin with 850 pound large straw bales. | Janet Kanters photo

The Fishers buy wheat straw following harvest. They began by buying from local farmers but today they search further afield because the product has gained in popularity and demand.

“Being that we live in a very agriculturally rich area, we felt that by purchasing local straw, after harvest, we would be able to produce a product that was truly made in Alberta,” said Dave. “It would be environmentally friendly, carbon neutral, recyclable and a reusable byproduct.

“It would be healthier for the animals as it is not dusty, it would be better for our plants as it is pH neutral and it would be re-using a bountiful product of harvest.”

The entrepreneurial family, including daughters Charlotte and Gabby, work the business from their farm in a large outbuilding fitted with the necessary equipment. They source the straw from local farmers and grow their own hay to bale and sell.

The pellets are created from large square straw bales via a proprietary process that involves primary processing and secondary processing, bulk storage, pellet formation, and cooling and packaging. The machinery they use to create the product was specially manufactured by Prince Edward Island-based Lawson Mills.

To create the pellets, the Fishers process 850-pound large square straw bales. On an average day, they process five to six bales, which equals about 5,000 lb. of pellets.

In 2019, the Fishers processed about 60,000 lb. of straw pellets.

Despite COVID demand has continued to increase, which has driven additional production, said Dave.

Currently, the Fishers manufacture two pelleted products: wheat straw pellets and barley straw pellets. Wheat straw pellets can be used as large animal bedding, as small animal litter and in gardening operations.

“When pelletized, wheat straw has the ability to absorb liquid four-to-one, and it also absorbs ammonia smells as it absorbs liquids,” said Corrie. “The pellets break down into ample amounts of bedding and sits thick, soft and dense under animal hoofs. And, best of all, no dust.”

Besides their use as large animal bedding in stalls and horse trailers, wheat straw pellets can also be used as cat and puppy litter, in chicken coops, bunny hutches and pigs pens, in bird cages, in hamster/gerbil/ferret hutches and even for turtles. The poop simply gets scooped out, while the urine is absorbed by the pellets which, in turn, expand.

After a few weeks, the pellets will have absorbed all they can, and then the litter can be added to a compost bin or directly into gardens and flowerbeds as mulch.

Dave Fisher shows the straw product after the first part of the processing, which chops the wheat straw fine before entering the pelletizer. | Janet Kanters photo

The pellets can also be used directly in the garden, either below seeded plants to absorb moisture, or between plant rows to curb weed growth.

“When used in horticulture, the pellets provide the plants a hydrated buffer for their roots to use to help the plant grow,” said Corrie. “It is also a barrier from weed seeds on the surface as it will suffocate a weed seed (although a rooted weed or grass will still come through but is easily removable).

“Straw pellets add structure to soil, especially clay-based soil, making your carrots and potatoes easy to dig out in the fall. The golden colour reflects the sunlight back onto the plants, which makes them vibrant.”

A relatively new product from the Fishers is barley straw pellets for algae control in water troughs and dugouts and ponds. The barley pellets are sold along with different sized burlap bags, depending on what you’re treating. The pellets are added to the bag, then placed in the water body to manage algae.

“The product is all natural, weed-free, chemical-free, and harmless to humans, animals, birds, fish and plants,” said Dave.

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